The 18 Bronzemen is another one of independent martial arts moviemaker Joseph Kuo’s (7 Grandmasters, The Mystery of Chess Boxing) films that played for nearly a decade in the grindhouses of New York’s 42nd Street. So it’s only fitting that a restored print of it it was screened as part of the 9th Old School Kung Fu Fest sponsored by the Museum of the Moving Image and Subway Cinema in association with Taipei Cultural Center in New York, Ministry of Culture, Republic of China (Taiwan).
As a young boy Tang Siu-Lung’s father, a Ming loyalist, is killed by agents of the Ching Dynasty. He is saved by his father’s friend who begins the boy’s instruction in the martial arts before placing him in the Shaolin Temple for safekeeping. Years later Tang Siu-Lung (Peng Tien, Jade Dagger Ninja, Equals Against Devils) is ready to leave the monastery but before he can leave with honour he must pass through the 36 Chambers and then as a final test, defeat the 18 Bronzemen.
That’s actually just the first part of The 18 Bronzemen. Apart from a couple of actual fights, the first half-hour of the film is one long training montage. Spread across the years we see our hero adapt to life at the temple. He meets Brother Chung (Carter Wong, Big Trouble in Little China, Ninja Killer) who also lost his parents to the Ching and the two develop their skills in order to get revenge. I’ve never been a big fan of these scenes even when they’re shorter and mixed into the action. Having one go on this long made it feel like it was dragging.
Things pick up at the half-hour mark when the students are ready to graduate. There is an assortment of fights here as they test against both the traps of the 36 chambers and the 18 bronzemen themselves. These range from fighting what looks like robots from a 1930s science fiction film to three on one sword fights against spray-painted warriors and an attempt on our hero’s life.
The film’s final act changes things up yet again, becoming a standard revenge film as the two seek out those responsible for their parent’s death. Returning home Tang Siu-Lung learns his true identity which only increases his desire for revenge.
Kuo had a bigger than usual budget for The 18 Bronzemen and it shows in all of the interiors and the larger than normal cast and number of extras filling out the crowd scenes. It’s still not a lavish production by any means, but it’s a step up from his other films and their mostly exterior settings. It’s a pity he couldn’t have had a similar budget on more of his films, as he does put it to good use.
Plotwise, the script by Kuo, Hsin-Yi Chang (Kung Fu Commandos, Hero of the Times) and Hung-Yan Kuo isn’t anything groundbreaking. The villain is a ruthless tyrant, dealing out death to both enemies and minions who fail him. There’s Miss Lu (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan, The Red Phoenix, Chinese Amazons) who is passing as a male fighter despite looking quite definitely female. And what revenge film would be complete without a double-cross or two on the way to the big showdown?
With so much emphasis on the film’s training scenes, The 18 Bronzemen is a bit low on the number of fights it delivers. But what we do get is well-staged thanks to stunt coordinators Shao-Peng Chen (Raiders of the Shaolin Temple, Kung Fu Cops), Fei-Lung Huang (Enter the Panther, Fists of Bruce Lee) and Cliff Lok (Dead Curse).
One thing that is unusual is the number of times we see a swastika on the screen, one of the heroes even has one tattooed on his chest. As most people know, the Nazis stole it from the Buddhists, so it’s being used in its proper meaning here. But since, for obvious reasons, most historical martial arts films avoided putting them on the screen it’s a bit of a shock at first.
Seen via Eureka’s new 2K restoration, it’s easy to see why The 18 Bronzemen had such a long run in its time. It has better production values than many of the indie fight films that played on the grindhouse circuit and, while I find them dull, those training scenes do have their fans. Something American films such as Rocky and The Karate Kid picked up on. And once you get past that, there are enough fights to keep the rest of the film moving at a solid pace.
The 18 Bronzemen is available in various levels of quality from several sources. The restored print is available as part of Eureka’s Cinematic Vengeance box set.